When Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons decided to order churches in his Delta town to stop in-person worship services to slow the spread of COVID-19, it made sense to Pastor Albert Calvin Jr., who was among the half-dozen religious leaders who joined the mayor for a meeting to discuss the issue on April 9.
“This is a pandemic that we must take heed to, and we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to keep people safe,” Calvin, a local pastor at Mount Horeb Missionary Baptist Church, told the Mississippi Free Press on April 10. His church decided to stop holding in-person services for the foreseeable future the weekend before Simmons’ order and is instead using Facebook Live to stream sermons and worship meetings.
In a press conference Monday, the African American mayor said he was motivated partly by a desire to “save lives.” Washington County, where Greenville is the county seat, has a higher rate of COVID-19 infections than most of the state, with 57 known cases and two deaths as of Monday. Last week, the Mississippi State Department of Health announced that African Americans account for more than 50% of known coronavirus cases and more than 70% of deaths statewide, despite making up less than 40% of the population.
“Here in Greenville, African Americans make up 70% of the population. … We need to be bold, and we need bold state leadership and partnership during this time,” Simmons said Monday.
Gov. Reeves: ‘Don’t Trample the Constitution’
The mayor’s order, though, has aroused anger among at least two local congregations, elicited a rebuke from Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a lawsuit, a scathing letter from U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr and even inspired death threats. The night after the mayor issued the order, which also banned drive-in services, congregants filled up the parking lot at Temple Baptist Church on Reed Road for Wednesday evening services.
Churchgoers remained in their cars, listening to the sermon via a low-frequency FM radio station. During the gathering, though, local police arrived and ordered people to leave, and issued $500 tickets to some who stayed behind, the Delta Democrat Times reported.
The next day, on April 9, the church’s pastor, Arthur Scott, went on the Todd Starnes Radio Show on Fox News Radio.
“One of the police officers wanted to make an example of our church,” Scott, a white minister, said. “I told them to get some more tickets ready because we will be preaching Sunday morning and Sunday night.”
That day, the Republican governor shared his own thoughts about the incident in a Facebook post. “If you send police after worshippers trying to social distance, you are going to have Mississippians revolt,” Reeves wrote. “I’ve asked all pastors not to hold these services—but we ordered churches safe from these outrageous actions. Don’t trample the constitution.”
Reeves issued a shelter-in-place order on April 3 to slow the novel coronavirus’ spread, but it exempts churches from the ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people.
In a press conference Monday morning, Simmons defended the Greenville order, saying national media had misrepresented what happened at Temple Baptist Church.
“Parishioners were kindly asked by law enforcement to leave. Most members immediately left. Only those who refused to leave were issued citations. … At no point in time have our officers raided or staked out any place of worship,” Simmons said, before announcing that the fines would be dropped.
Simmons urged the governor to issue a statewide order, clarifying whether or not churches should hold drive-in services. During a conference call between the governor and mayors across the state a few weeks ago, the mayor said, Reeves expressed his own reservations about the potential hazards drive-in services could introduce.
U.S. Attorney General Barr Accuses Greenville of Targeting Religion
On Tuesday, the U.S. The Department of Justice filed a “Statement of Interest” in federal court to express support for Temple Baptist Church, which is suing the City of Greenville, claiming that the city is unconstitutionally targeting religious institutions. Temple Baptist claims that Greenville’s order places more restrictions on churches that follow CDC guidelines than it does on businesses, like drive-in restaurants, which are still allowed to offer curbside service, pickup and delivery.
“The facts alleged in the complaint strongly suggest that the city’s actions target religious conduct,” the DOJ statement reads. “If proven, these facts establish a free exercise violation unless the city demonstrates that its actions are neutral and apply generally to nonreligious and religious institutions or satisfies the demanding strict scrutiny standard.”
In a letter Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr wrote that religion’s importance remains more important “than ever during this difficult time.”
Barr, a devout Catholic, has long prioritized “religious liberty” as one of his top causes. In a speech last October at the University of Notre Dame, he claimed that “the secular project itself has become a religion, pursued with religious fervor,” and that “progressives” are trying to dismantle religious liberty. But the Trump administration, he said, “firmly supports the accommodation of religion.”
“If ever there was a need for a resurgence of Catholic education—and more generally religiously affiliated schools—it is today,” Barr told Notre Dame. “I think we should do all we can to promote and support authentic Catholic education at all levels.”
Those themes reappear in Barr’s letter about Greenville on Tuesday, with the attorney general writing that, while his department supports social-distancing measures, “religious and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans.”
“The United States Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any houses of worship for special reasons,” Barr said.
‘We’re Worshipping in a Different Way’
Three Greenville religious leaders who spoke to the Mississippi Free Press, including Calvin, the pastor at Mount Horeb Missionary Baptist, said they back the mayor’s decision. All three were either present at the meeting with Simmons on April 9 or joined in by phone.
“Most of the pastors who were present on the call yesterday agreed. Our worship services are not being stopped,” Anjohnette Gibbs, the pastor at Evans United Methodist Church in Greenville, told the Mississippi Free Press on April 10. “We’re worshipping in a different way to ensure the safety of our parishioners, and using all the media that is available—Zoom, Facebook Live, FreeConferenceCall.com.”
Like Calvin, Gibbs, who is African American, disputes the notion that religious liberty means adherents must be able to worship in a building even in the midst of a pandemic.
“God is everywhere, and everywhere we are, God is,” Gibbs said in the interview. “So we’ve missed the mark if we are limiting ourselves to a facility, because in seminary, I have an experience where a church burned down, but the church, which is the people, never stopped worshipping. They worshipped on the site where the church burned down. So we’ve forgotten and our focus is in the wrong place.”
Rev. Brandt Dick, who is white and the rector at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Greenville, said he does not see the order “as an infringement on religious rights or anything.”
“The mayor has gone out of his way to say, ‘Have religious services.’ Steam them, Zoom them. … You can’t sit in cars in parking lots because you can’t control what will happen. And the fewer interactions we have, the sooner the curve will flatten and the better off we will be,” Dick told the Mississippi Free Press on April 10.
Similarly, Calvin said that he worried that pastors would not be able to prevent congregants from socializing in the parking lot or while leaving their cars to go to the restroom. People should understand that there is a difference between “faith” and “foolishness,” he said in the interview, and not look at the mayor’s order as an attempt to infringe on religious liberty.
The issue hits home for Calvin. The Sunday before the mayor issued his order, the pastor learned that his 40-year-old cousin in Chicago had died after getting infected with the novel coronavirus.
“Those people who want to be fanatical and say, ‘Well, we have a right to worship?’ That building where we worship is just a building that houses the sanctuary,” Calvin said. “The sanctuary is us. That’s the thing that I have been stressing to our congregation in 41 years of pastoring and almost 51 years of preaching. The church is not the building. It’s the people. … Let’s not be fanatical.”
Since moving to livestreams, all three leaders say they have broadened their followings with people who never attended a service in person tuning in.
“Far from infringing on religious freedom, it has been an opportunity for us, and I think for other churches, to explore new ways of being the church. … I get comments from folks all over the country who have tuned in to see our services who would never have heard of us if not for this,” Dick said.
‘Protecting Religious Liberty is Essential’
First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm that says it is “dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans,” issued a statement on April 9, demanding that Simmons rescind the order ending drive-in church services. The group claimed that his order violates the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which it said “prohibits government officials from substantially burdening religious exercise without demonstrating that the restriction imposed advances a compelling interest by the least restrictive means.”
“Protecting religious liberty is essential, even during a pandemic. Americans can tolerate a lot, if it means demonstrating love for their fellow man, but they will not—nor should not—tolerate churchgoers being ticketed by the police for following CDC guidelines at church,” Jeremy Dys, the special counsel for litigation communications at the institute, said in the statement. “This has to stop now.”
Neither First Liberty nor the Greenville Church it represents, King James Bible Baptist Church, responded to a request for comment by press time Monday.
Gov. Reeves, who served as president of the Mississippi Senate and oversaw the passage of Senate Bill 2681, the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, in 2014, has typically been sympathetic to claims of “religious liberty” infractions against Christians, including in this case. On Friday, though, the governor signed Executive Order No. 1470, which forbids “elective” procedures, including abortions, for two weeks as COVID-19 cases escalate in Mississippi. Before issuing the order, Reeves said he was using a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals order as a “guideline.”
That ruling, though, found that the government can “restrict, for example, one’s right to peaceably assemble, to publicly worship, to travel, and even to leave one’s home” during a pandemic. The ruling also cites a 1944 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that the “right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community … to communicable diseases.”
Despite support from a number of local religious leaders, though, national figures like Starnes, the Fox News Radio host, have sought to paint the Democratic mayor as a persecutor of Christians.
“The U.S. Constitution is under assault, not from a deadly virus, but by leftist lawmakers who want to silence people of faith and shut down their church houses,” Starnes wrote in an opinion article that Gov. Reeves shared on Facebook last Friday. “Our Founding Fathers fought a war over this kind of aggression.”
Simmons’ record does not paint a picture of an anti-religious local leader, though. In several posts on the City of Greenville’s Facebook page last September, the mayor invites residents to “Worship on the Water,” which he billed as “Greenville’s Race Reconciliation Faith Based Initiative.”
Mayor Targeted With Death Threats
At Monday’s press conference in Greenville, Simmons said that he, like many other Christians, was disheartened that he could not join other believers for Easter services on Sunday. He said his record is clear on his support for “faith-based communities and serving in our personal walk with Jesus.”
Since the order, though, Simmons said, he and his family have received a number of death threats.
“i hope you get a hole blasted in your chest f**k you,” reads one Facebook comment his office shared with the Mississippi Free Press.
Simmons’ office also shared an April 11 email that, similar to Reeves’ Facebook post accusing Simmons of “trampling the constitution” and warning of a “revolt,” accused the African American mayor of “trampling God-given rights” and instituting “Nazi socialist totalitarian despot rule.”
“Since the tyrant that calls himself mayor has gone totalitarian and is sending armed thugs to trample God given rights we the people have no choice but to arm ourselves and defend our unalienable rights,” the email reads. “If police officers show up to ANY drive through church, and parishioners they will face armed security. You have forced us to defend our rights from a tyrant. … Read the Declaration of Independence, specifically the 2nd paragraph, see where it says we have the right to abolish a destructive government. Well you are nothing but destructive and we have the last 50+ years to prove it. United wee (sic) stand against your tyranny. See you Sunday.”
Voters first elected Simmons, the first black man and second African American to serve as mayor of Greenville, in 2016. On Friday, Simmons said he has never directed local police to go to a church to arrest anyone. Police responded to calls from other town residents, he said.
Despite the criticisms and hate mail, Simmons told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview Friday, he sees religious communities continuing to worship in his town by serving others, even if they cannot meet together in a church building. He pointed to efforts by locals to make sure enough meals are going out to needy families in the community, with Greenville’s soup kitchen and food pantry serving more than 100 people per day.
“God has his way of coming to his people to say, ‘I want you to decrease so you can increase in me.’ And so I think this is a moment of time when he wants us to be creative,” Simmons said. “And in that creation, we’re showing greater love to our brothers and sisters.”
The Mississippi Free Press has an interactive map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state and one showing the number of ICU beds in counties across the state.